"Yesterday, once again, this time horrifically on live television," says Hillary Clinton in a video on her presidential campaign website, "we saw the terrible consequences of gun violence." As it turns out, she's not talking about civilian deaths from drone strikes or bombing raids on hospitals by the U.S. government, but instead about a criminal shooting spree in the United States. Sure enough, the Washington Post pointed out last week that one of Clinton's signature issues heading into the general election is tightening restrictions on the ownership and use of guns by Americans.
That's a tall order in a country where gun ownership for recreational shooting and self-defense is wildly popular. Nobody knows for sure, but the best estimate is that there are north of 300 million firearms in private hands in this country. The ownership of those weapons is closely intermingled with the concept of personal liberty and resistance to abusive government in the minds of a great many Americans, as documented by scholars who both approve and disapprove of that association. Unsurprisingly, federal lawmakers from both major parties are hesitant to wade into the issue, either because they share the aversion to restrictive gun laws, or because they're leery of voters who do, and who are wont to collect scalps on election day. Just last November, analysts attributed aggressive advocacy of gun control as the key to Democratic losses in Virginia's legislative races.
But Hillary Clinton has a plan.
"If Congress refuses to act, Hillary will take administrative action" on restrictions, her campaign boasts. The Washington Post adds that that a President Clinton would be "relying on the executive power of the presidency to further gun restrictions that would have little chance of becoming law."
Some people might balk at a president who threatens to rule by decree when Congress insists on exercising its constitutional right to approve and disapprove legislation, but maybe that's a bit old fashioned in our senescent republic. Still, a potential President Clinton's gun control agenda is likely to founder no matter how many strokes of the pen flow from her desk because of the opposition of the very people to whom they're supposed to apply.
"Australia is a good example" Clinton told an audience a few months ago. "The Australian government, as part of trying to clamp down on the availability of automatic weapons, offered a good price for buying hundreds of thousands of guns. Then, they basically clamped down, going forward."
That country's 1996 law may well be a good example, but not of the sort the presidential candidate has in mind. In a country that lacked America's heavy political associations with gun ownership, the Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia estimates compliance with the compensated confiscation of self-loading rifles, self-loading shotguns, and pump-action shotguns at 19 percent.
Independent assessments agree. "In Australia it is estimated that only about 20% of all banned self-loading rifles have been given up to the authorities," concluded Franz Csaszar, a professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, Austria.
Looking closer to home, the prospects for Clinton-decreed restrictions are even more dismal.
Clinton favors requiring "universal background checks" that would cover private sales between friends and neighbors that inherently take place out of public view. But when Colorado adopted such a requirement, the results were underwhelming, with the Associated Press finding 13,600 actual checks performed in 2013 after 210,00 had been predicted by a legislative impact assessment.
"The numbers are pretty clear here," Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray) commented in 2014. "There's no increase in private transfers for background checks, which means either there aren't very many private sales, or what is much more likely people are just ignoring this law."
When New York, a state Hillary Clinton once represented in the U.S. Senate, required residents to register the popular military-styled semi-automatic rifles often termed "assault weapons," the law achieved maybe five percent compliance. "Empire State gun owners are largely ignoring one of the signature elements of the watershed legislation," the New York Daily News concluded last year.
A similar law drew perhaps 15 percent compliance from Connecticut residents, prompting the editorial board of the resolutely anti-gun Hartford Courant to moan that "widespread noncompliance…creates a headache for the state."
How much Tylenol will President Clinton need when the whole country ignores her schemes?
Not all of the measures Clinton favors require the public's cooperation. She wants to "repeal the gun industry's unique immunity protection"—the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms—which was enacted to protect gun makers against politicized lawsuits intended to penalize them for the acts of criminals who acquired and misused their products.
As even rival Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) objects, "If you go to a gun store and you legally purchase a gun, and then, three days later, if you go out and start killing people, is the point of this lawsuit to hold the gun shop owner or the manufacturer of that gun liable? If that is the point, I have to tell you I disagree."
A lot of other people will disagree too. But bankrupting gun makers with frivolous lawsuits could enact a de facto ban on the commercial production of new guns for civilian ownership, if the courts cooperate.
But even the expanded power of the modern presidency isn't up to repealing that law on its own. She would require a majority in Congress to make the gun industry vulnerable to legal kneecapping.
And such a move would do nothing about the 300 million guns already in private hands, except to tighten their owners' grips on their property. Cutting off commercial production also wouldn't end the manufacture of guns by enthusiasts—a task ever-easier in the age of 3D printing and CNC milling machines.
Hillary Clinton thinks she's found a formula for winning the presidency by attacking gun rights. But her chosen attack on a cherished freedom picks a fight with millions of Americans—and with reality.